2021 03 30-e lee--philadelphia south street headhouse-easter egg hunt shoppers

Shoppers walk on South Street. The South Street Headhouse district has so far survived the pandemic, with new businesses replacing those that have closed. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Behind the empty storefronts and top-level unemployment stats, Philadelphia’s economy is slowly recovering. That’s the main takeaway from a new dashboard from The Pew Charitable Trusts that combines data from the federal government, a credit agency, and other sources to give a rolling look at local business health in our region.

“How many businesses have we lost? Which communities have lost them? These are very important questions,” said Tom Ginsberg, senior officer with Pew’s Philadelphia Research and Policy Initiative.

The tool, much like the COVID-19 case trackers rolled out by researchers and local governments during the pandemic, provides a regularly updated look at the local economy. The results can be filtered by ZIP code, industries, and other factors.

The aim is to provide local insights, which in turn can help influence local policy. Taking the example of Manayunk, where the dashboard shows many businesses are still behind on bills and are becoming less financially stable, “that might be a part of town that merits some attention” from city officials and economic development groups, said Ginsberg.

Overall, jobs are down in Philadelphia by around 8%, compared to June 2019. However businesses like internet service providers, law firms, and biotech labs report having more workers.

What industry you work in also makes a big difference for financial stability. The health care sector, the city’s largest employer, is faring much better than hospitality, arts and entertainment industries, for example. The hospitality industry, which has been wrecked by the pandemic nationally, is also the least stable at the moment, according to one metric. Businesses in that sector are at particularly high risk of default in West Kensington, Logan/Ogontz and Kingsessing ZIP codes.

The data also showed some unexpected positives. Federal stimulus programs such as the Payroll Protection Program are credited with keeping delinquency rates, or the proportion of businesses behind on their bills, lower than expected in 2020, said Ginsberg.

“We were a little surprised to see that delinquency, frankly, wasn’t worse,” he said.

Another surprise is that the overall number of businesses grew, though by a very modest 1.1% , over the pandemic. However, “the normal trend would have been a lot more,” said Ginsberg.

The dashboard will also track consumer spending. Philadelphians are also doing “a lot of shopping,” said Ginsberg, and are spending more at small businesses providing food, recreation, clothing, and other consumer goods, in part fueled by a boom in online purchases.

This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.

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